LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost 200,000 women and girls living in England and Wales have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) or are at risk of being cut, according to new estimates - a far higher number than previously thought.
The figures were released on Monday on the eve of Girl Summit, an international conference in London aimed at tackling FGM and child marriage.
An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales who were born in countries where FGM is prevalent have been cut, according to a report by rights group Equality Now and City University London.
Experts also calculated that about 60,000 girls up to the age of 14 have been born in England and Wales to mothers who have had FGM, suggesting they may be at risk or have already been cut.
Efua Dorkenoo, senior FGM adviser to Equality Now, said: "…the government needs to get a handle over this extreme abuse of the most vulnerable girls in our society by implementing a robust national plan to address the issue".
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In its most extreme form, known as infibulation, the girl’s vaginal opening is also stitched or sealed.
The ritual, done for cultural, traditional or religious reasons, can cause a host of serious physical and psychological problems. In some cases girls die during the procedure. FGM may also cause fatal complications during childbirth later in life.
Up to now the government has relied on a 2007 study which estimated more than 20,000 girls were at high risk of FGM in England and Wales and 66,000 girls and women aged 15-49 had already undergone the practice. Recent migration patterns mean that these figures - based on 2001 census data - are out of date.
Earlier this month a parliamentary committee issued a damning report which described the FGM crisis as "a national scandal" and called for an immediate plan to tackle it.
Dorkenoo said professionals – like health workers, teachers and social workers – were crying out for clear guidance on how to identify and refer girls at risk.
"There is no time to waste on platitudes as thousands of girls living in England and Wales are having their life blighted by this damaging practice," said Dorkenoo, who co-authored the report which is part-funded by the government.
The survey combined FGM prevalence data from the 29 countries where it is most commonly practised in Africa and the Middle East with information from the 2011 census about women who had migrated from those countries.
Researchers will now calculate estimates for local areas to enable professionals to plan services to support women affected by FGM and protect their daughters.
The World Health Organisation estimates that globally 100 to 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM.
(Editing by Ros Russell, email@example.com)